There’s a larger problem: aligning retiree spending with Social Security checks
Social Security beneficiaries might not receive much of a cost-of-living adjustment next year — and some say recipients might not get anything at all.
COLA is linked to the consumer-price index, which has suffered lately because of low oil prices. Based on the CPI data between January and April of this year, COLA for next year would be zero, according to Mary Johnson, a Social Security policy analyst for The Senior Citizens League. There are still five months until the administration announces the COLA for 2021, which occurs in October.
The adjustment in 2020 was considered minimal, at 1.6% this year, down from 2.8% in 2019. COLAs have averaged 1.4% over the last decade, down from the average 3% it was between 2000 and 2009.
But even if the adjustment was above zero, it still wouldn’t be enough for most retirees, studies show. Many Americans rely on Social Security benefits for some, and in some cases most, of their retirement income, but the benefit doesn’t align with actual cost of goods for retirees.
Since 2000, Social Security COLAs have increased benefits by 53% but the prices of what retirees typically buy has grown almost double, to 99.3%.
The problem: Social Security’s cost-of-living adjustment is linked to the consumer-price index for urban workers. There’s another subset of CPI, known as CPI-E, which tracks elderly spending. The difference is primarily in health care and housing. Those expenses, including Medicare premiums and homeowners’ insurance, grow rapidly year over year, but benefit adjustments don’t reflect that growth.
The coronavirus crisis could deepen the divide, especially as medical expenses drop in some areas — such as elective surgeries — but increase in others, including care for COVID-19 patients. “Older people are disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 crisis, often due to underlying medical conditions,” Johnson said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as other leading figures, have urged older Americans to stay home and away from others as they are typically at a higher risk of complications from contracting the virus.
Annual average out-of-pocket expenses for prescription drugs were $1,102 in January 2000 and $3,875.76 in January 2020, according to the study — a 252% increase. Medicare Part B premiums jumped 218% during the same time frame, and home heating oil grew 172% during that period. Even the price of oranges grew more than double, from $0.61 in 2000 to $1.34 in 2020, a 120% increase. A retiree in 2000 with an average benefit of $816 a month would have $1,246.20 in 2020, but would need $380 more a month just to maintain that same level of buying power she had in 2000.
In total, Social Security benefits have lost 30% of buying power since 2000, Johnson said in her report. That is a slight improvement from last year’s report, when the findings were a 33% loss of buying power since 2000.
But there is still much uncertainty as to what will happen in the coming months in light of the pandemic. In some cases, consumer prices are rising — such as for groceries and meat as more consumers cook at home and factories are shuttered — while in other scenarios, costs of goods and services are declining, such as with insurance and airfare. “There’s going to be some lag-time before we know the full impact of what is going on,” Johnson said.